I am not a gourmet; I don’t have the palate . I can’t deconstruct a dish and tell you all the various ingredients and I feel envious of chefs who speak of ” flavor profiles” and ” layers of flavor”. I am not a gourmand either: I don’t pig out at buffets and feasts , not usually anyway. What I am is a foodie ,by which I mean someone who likes to read ,about food , to see it , to cook it and not merely to eat it .
As a foodie , one of the things I like to do is going to food markets , especially ethnic food markets. When we travel abroad , it is a must to visit the local food market. Such visits give insights into the culture and the daily lives of the local inhabitants as nothing else does. Museums and palaces are fine ( I enjoy those too) but given a choice I would rather go to the marketplace. Thus I have been to the agora in Athens , the Spice Market in Istanbul , the outdoor market in St . Lucia , the fruit and vegetable market in Kyoto , a supermarket in Ocho Rios , the fish market in Pune , the vegetable market in Goa,and a food court in Tokyo.There have been others too but I don’t want to try to list them all. Each of these places has taught me certain things and added to my store of memories.
By far the most beautiful was the market in Kyoto which was a marvel of cleanliness and meticulous arrangement. The fruits and vegetables were lovingly displayed like jewels and even the fish and meat sections were odorless and pristine. The basement food court at Takashimaya in Tokyo was not only beautiful but staggering in the variety and amount of foods on sale. At the other end of the scale was the outdoor market in St. Lucia , where the paucity of the vegetables and their high cost made me wonder how the locals were able to survive. The Spice market in Istanbul was colorful with its bags of spice powders , notably among which was ” Indian Saffron ‘ but which merely turned out to be turmeric !
My visits to markets are not confined to our trips abroad. I also like to visit ethnic food markets here in the U.S. Living in Edison N.J as I do , an enclave of Indian -Americans , there are dozens of Indian groceries, each of which is slightly different from the next . What a change from the time we first moved to Edison in the early seventies . Then there was one small store ( run by a Patel family , of course !) and the variety of vegetables and other comestibles was very limited. Now the quality and variety of foods on sale is unbelievable. Every year there seem to be more regional foods , more prepared foods and even more vegetables , some of which I’ve never eaten though I was born in India. It is a constant voyage of discovery as I try to incorporate these new discoveries into our home cooking.
There are also a number of Asian groceries in the vicinity and I only wish they were closer. We had a cavernous Hong Kong Market a couple of miles away but they moved to another location , in East Brunswick , about 10 miles away. Luckily , there is a large Asian Food Mart in neighboring Piscataway and it is a place where I can happily spend a whole morning or afternoon. Looking at the array of fresh vegetables there , one realizes how limited the restaurant menus are .
I particularly like to go to go to Asian food stores for meat and fish . Many of the regular supermarkets do not sell fresh fish any more , just frozen varieties. As far as meat is concerned , the Asian markets not only have a wider variety of cuts but are markedly cheaper. The one problem that I have with Asian food stores is that none of the help knows English and it is very frustrating to try and find a particular ingredient when one doesn’t know exactly where it is . Very often too , the types of fish are not labeled and, of course, the countermen don’t know the English names.
Other ethnic food marts that I’ve visited in New Jersey are West Indian, Indonesian and Latin American. The West Indian one in Linden closed down , unfortunately, and it was interesting for its pyramids of canned foods, its fresh fish counter and its hot sauces . Its closing was not a surprise because there never seemed to be any customers .The Indonesian one also closed down which was no surprise either and also no big loss. The one time that I went there I found only a limited range of goods and almost nothing that I could not get cheaper in the giant Asian stores. The Latin American supermarket on the outskirts of Newark is of interest because of its wide variety of South American vegetables but the meat section is a horror , with pieces of meat unappetizingly and unhgyenically displayed . If I had to get meat there I would sooner become a vegetarian.
A new discovery is H- mart , a Korean food market that has only been in Edison for about a year. I’ve only been there just once , but I think it is going to become one of my favorites. Everything is beautifully displayed and is unbelievably clean . You could eat of the floor , literally , and that’s no exaggeration . The array of fish and meat is staggering and – thank you , Lord – everything is neatly labeled and everyone speaks English. The variety of hot bean pastes and sauces is entrancing as is the selection of marinated meats , ready for barbecuing at home . There will be a lot of Korean barbecue this summer at my house !
The H-Mart is huge and includes a food court selling sushi, Korean fried chicken , dumplings and Korean specialties. With the number of Korean TV series and movies that I’m watching on Netflix and with my discovery of H-Mart , I’m going to be well-traveled in Korea without ever having set foot there .